Security Testing

Security Testing
Testing contributes to software development in a negative and a positive way: by
detecting defects that need to be removed and by providing confidence in correct
system performance.
Security testing, in contrast to other types of testing, is more about what the software
ought not to do rather than what it ought to do.
Security issues arise from that fraction of software defects that are termed
vulnerabilities, which could be exploited to adversely affect confidentiality, integrity, or
accessibility of a system or its data.
Rather than being driven by customer- or user-supplied requirements, security testing is
typically mapped against anticipated attacks on the system. Hence, the development of
misuse (or abuse) cases to describe conditions under which attackers might threaten
the system, in contrast to the traditional use cases, which describe “normal” interaction
Just as traditional usability and reliability testing need a proper context for their design
and interpretation, so too security testing needs its context if it is to provide useful
insights. Threat modeling (Reference 1) for security testing can be considered
analogous to the development of operational profiles in reliability testing.
Identifying potential threats to security is inherently more complex and uncertain than
working within a well-defined community of stakeholders, all of whom wish the system
to work successfully. First, the value of the system – its appeal to attackers – must be
characterized across a range of potential abusers. Further, different attackers will
themselves have different definitions of success, such as the extent to which they wish
to remain undetected or anonymous.
Any testing must always be considered as but one tool in support of risk management.
Recent guidance from the National Institute for Standards and Technology (Reference
2), for instance, places security testing within the larger context of security control
assessment, defined as “the testing and/or evaluation of the management, operational,
and technical security controls to determine the extent to which the controls are
implemented correctly, operating as intended, and producing the desired outcome with
respect to meeting the security requirements for an information system or organization.”
Unfortunately, security requirements are not typically specified and security
expectations are not usually explicitly aligned with organizational needs and strategies,
as th f figure below, from Reference 2, idealizes.
Information Security Requirements Integration (Reference 2)
Instead, the challenge all too often is simply to understand where the organization is
most vulnerable and then to design and conduct security testing accordingly. As with
any other testing, the limitations of schedule and budget force prioritization in order to
maximize the value of the testing.
Another NIST publication (Reference 3) emphasizes various limitations of the testing
approach and indicates that testing is best combined with a wider array of assessment
techniques. For instance, “testing is less likely than examinations to identify
weaknesses related to security policy and configuration.”
Reference 3 characterizes penetration testing as support of target vulnerability
validation and brackets its application with “password cracking” and “social
engineering”. Indeed, the greatest weakness in any security configuration is likely to be
the human element, and testing should assess exposures due to attackers’ acquiring
insider knowledge or impersonating legitimate users.
To the extent that security measures primarily consist of building defensive barriers,
then the prerequisite for any security assessment would be penetration testing. This
type of testing is meant to determine the capabilities required to breach those barriers.
A helpful historical survey (Reference 4) asserts that “penetration testing has indeed
advanced significantly but is still not as useful in the software development process as it
ought to be” due to a number of limitations. Most penetration testing is typically done
far too late in the software development life cycle and without sufficient sensitivity to the
wider range of business risks. Traditional organizational responsibilities and reporting
chains also mean that test result analyses “generally prescribe remediation at the
firewall, network, and operating system configuration level … [which are not] truly useful
for software development purposes.”
Reference 4 provides helpful discussions of specific vulnerability scanning and testing
tools (host- or network-based) and techniques. It advocates penetration testing that is
less “black box” (ignorant of system internals) and more “clear box” (sometimes called
“white box”) in which design and implementation details are visible to the tester,
allowing exploration of more potential weak spots.
Note that “white box” testing is not to be confused with “white hat” testing. Security
testing is often differentiated as being conducted as either overt (“white hat”) or covert
(“black hat”).
A more complex representation (and less standard terminology) of the possible
permutations of mutual knowledge is shown in this figure from Reference 5
Target-Attacker Matrix
See [6] for further details on design-based security testing, which may involve analyzing
data flow, control flow, information flow, coding practices, and exception and error
handling within the system. It recommends test-related activities across the
development life cycle:
o Initiation Phase should include preliminary risk analysis, incorporating
history of previous attacks on similar systems.
o Requirements Phase involves establishing test management processes
and conducting more detailed risk analysis.
o Design Phase allows focus of test resources on specific modules, such as
those designed to provide risk mitigation.
o Coding Phase permits functional testing to begin at the unit level as
individual modules are implemented.
o Testing Phase moves from unit testing through integration testing to
complete system testing.
o Operational Phase may begin with beta testing and continues to require
attention as deployment may involve configuration errors or encounters
with unexpected aspects of the operational environment.
See Reference 7 for an extensive discussion of software assurance tools and
techniques, with links to numerous other resources and to a reference dataset of
security flaws and associated identification test cases.
No measures of security test coverage seem particularly helpful. One could test against
a “top twenty-five” list of known vulnerabilities (Reference 8), but no Pareto-like analysis
has ever been published to indicate if exploiting the “top twenty-five” results in 80% of
security breaches … or 8% … or any other proportion.
Similarly, one might wish to engage in security growth modeling, analogous to reliability
growth modeling [9], but little empirical data and no significant supporting analyses have
been published.
Threat modeling explores a range of possible attackers, all with different capabilities
and incentives. These characteristics might be helpfully profiled in terms of knowledge,
skills, resources, and motivation:
o What is the distribution of knowledge about existing vulnerabilities?
o How likely is an attacker to possess the skills required to exploit a given
o How extensive are the resources (access, computing power, etc.) that
might be brought to bear?
o What motivations would keep a given attacker on task to successful
completion of the attack?
Results of test cases need to be considered with more nuance than simply noting the
success or failure of breaching security. They must be calibrated in terms of these
same aspects:
o What knowledge about a given vulnerability was assumed in the test
o What specific skills and skill levels were employed within the test?
o How extensive were the resources that were required to execute the test?
o What motivations of an attacker would be sufficient to persist and produce
a similar result?
Risk-based security testing (Reference 10) is concerned not simply with the probability
of a breach but, more importantly, with the nature of any breach. What are the goals of
different attackers and what might be the consequence of their actions?
A range of security tests might, for instance, indicate the probability of a
successful denial-of-service attack as 20%, of a confidentiality violation as 10%,
and of an undetected data integrity manipulation as 5%.
If Attacker A were interested in extorting protection payment to forego a
$1,000,000 opportunity cost due to website unavailability, then the business
would be facing a risk exposure of 20% of that potential loss -- $200,000.
Attacker B, intent on revealing confidential information that would cost
$5,000,000 in regulatory fines and legal expenses, would represent a risk
exposure of 10% of that value -- $500,000.
Finally, if a competitive advantage of $20,000,000 might be gained by Attacker C
successfully corrupting business-sensitive data, then that risk exposure would be
greatest even with 5% as the lowest probability of occurrence -- $1,000.000.
The next step would be to analyze the return on security investment and allocate
resources accordingly. Reducing risk exposure might be accomplished by any
combination of reducing the probability of the occurrence (risk avoidance) and reducing
the consequences should the event occur (risk mitigation).
Consider defending against Attacker A. Perhaps $25,000 is budgeted for security
improvement. If that amount was invested in risk avoidance, say by strengthening
website defenses, it might reduce the probability of a successful denial-of-service attack
from 20% to 15%, representing a risk exposure reduction of 5% of the potential
$1,000,000 loss and yielding a return on investment of $50,000/$25,000 = a ratio of 2.
An alternative investment in risk mitigation, say by decreasing incident recovery time,
might lower the cost of a successful attack by $400,000. That return on investment
would be calculated for a risk exposure reduction of $80,000 (given the unchanged 20%
probability of occurrence) divided by the $25,000 allocated – a more attractive return
ratio of 3.2.
Of course, an even better return might be found by some optimal combination of
investments in both risk avoidance and risk mitigation.
Reference 10 concludes that “although it is strongly recommended that an organization
not rely exclusively on security test activities to build security into a system, security
testing, when coupled with other security activities performed throughout the SDLC, can
be very effective in validating design assumptions, discovering vulnerabilities associated
with the application environment, and identifying implementation issues that may lead to
security vulnerabilities.”
1, Frank Swiderski and Window Snyder. Threat Modeling. Redmond,
Washington: Microsoft Press. 2004.
1. NIST Special Publication 800-39, Managing Information Security Risk:
Organization, Mission, and Information System View (March 2011).
2. NIST Special Publication 800-115, Technical Guide to Information Security
Testing and Assessment (September 2008).
3. Kenneth R. van Wyk. Adapting Penetration Testing for Software Development
Purposes. (
4. Institute for Security and Open Methodologies. OSSTMM 3 – The Open
Source Security Testing Methodology Manual
5. Girish Janardhanudu. White Box Testing (
6. Software Assurance Metrics And Tool Evaluation (
7. 2011 CWE/SANS Top 25 Most Dangerous Software Errors
8. M. R. Lyu, Ed., Handbook of Software Reliability Engineering: McGraw-Hill
and IEEE Computer Society Press, 1996.
9. C. C. Michael and Will Radosevich. Risk-Based and Functional Security
Testing. (
10. Julia H. Allen, Sean Barnum, Robert J. Ellison, Gary McGraw, and Nancy R.
Mead. Software Security Engineering: A Guide for Project Managers. Upper
Saddle River, N.J.: Addison-Wesley. 2008.
11. Chris Wysopal, Lucas Nelson, Dino Dai Zovi, and Elfriede Dustin. The Art of
Software Security Testing: Identifying Software Security Flaws. Upper Saddle
River, N.J.: Addison-Wesley. 2007.
NOTE: Reference this resource as
Link for PDF file at is incorrect
Software Security Testing
Development, Volume III – (Version 1.0, May 21, 2012)
Software security testing validates the secure implementation of a product thus reducing the
likelihood of security flaws being released and discovered by customers or malicious users. The goal
is not to "test in security," but to validate the robustness and security of the software products prior to
making them available to customers and to prevent security vulnerabilities from ever entering the
software. This volume of the pocket guide describes the most effective security testing techniques,
their strengths and weaknesses, and when to apply them during the Software Development Life